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The Church Confronts Modernity

The Church Confronts Modernity: Catholic Intellectuals and the Progressive Era

Thomas E. Woods
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  • Book Info
    The Church Confronts Modernity
    Book Description:

    As the twentieth century opened, American intellectuals grew increasingly sympathetic to Pragmatism and empirical methods in the social sciences. The Progressive program as a whole -- in the form of Pragmatism, education, modern sociology, and nationalism -- seemed to be in agreement on one thing: everything was in flux. The dogma and "absolute truth" of the Church were archaisms, unsuited to modern American citizenship and at odds with the new public philosophy being forged by such intellectuals as John Dewey, William James, and the New Republic magazine. Catholics saw this new public philosophy as at least partly an attack on them.

    Focusing on the Catholic intellectual critique of modernity during the period immediately before and after the turn of the twentieth century, this provocative and original book examines how the Catholic Church attempted to retain its identity in an age of pluralism. It shows a Church fundamentally united on major issues -- quite unlike the present-day Catholic Church, which has been the site of a low-intensity civil war since the close of the Second Vatican Council in 1965. Defenders of the faith opposed James, Dewey, and other representatives of Pragmatism as it played out in ethics, education, and nationalism. Their goals were to found an economic and political philosophy based on natural law, to appropriate what good they could find in Progressivism to the benefit of the Church, and to make America a Catholic country.

    The Church Confronts Modernity explores how the decidedly nonpluralistic institution of Christianity responded to an increasingly pluralistic intellectual environment. In a culture whose chief value was pluralism, they insisted on the uniqueness of the Church and the need for making value judgments based on what they considered a sound philosophy of humanity. In neither capitulating to the new creed nor retreating into a self-righteous isolation, American Catholic intellectuals thus laid the groundwork for a half-century of intellectual vitality.

    eISBN: 978-0-231-50687-8
    Subjects: Religion

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-xii)
    (pp. 1-22)

    When Father Thomas J. Gerrard opened the July 1912 issue of the monthly Catholic World with a lengthy article titled “Modern Theories and Moral Disaster,” he conveyed the unease felt by American Catholic thinkers as they surveyed their intellectual milieu in the early twentieth century. From philosophy and economics to art and education, Gerrard explained, the modern world was growing increasingly antagonistic toward Christendom. The subjectivism that had begun with Descartes and that had become more pronounced over the following three centuries of philosophic thought was at last reaching its ultimate destination—not merely in atheism but also in radical...

    (pp. 23-50)

    “To-day the approach to god is made difficult in many ways,” the weekly Jesuit periodical America declared in 1912. “And, sad to say, modern philosophy does its part to obstruct the path that leads to Him.”¹ It was a statement with which few Progressive Era Catholics would have disagreed. The subjectivism of modern philosophy, from what they could see, seemed to be causing man to retreat within himself, to cut himself off not only from God but even from objective reality itself.

    But before considering the philosophical school known as Pragmatism—the most prominent example of the intellectual trends that...

    (pp. 51-84)

    To the extent that man’s social nature has always commanded the attention of political philosophers, what we now call sociology can be said to have originated in classical antiquity. Yet among the Greeks the ground was not particularly fertile for sociological analysis. The Greek intellectual tradition was not especially suited to either the inductive methods or the assumption of social progress that characterizes modern sociology. Greek thinkers often preferred the elegance of deduction from a priori principles to the mundane details of social observation. Worse, a static view of society—which hardly lent itself to the emergence of a science...

    (pp. 85-118)

    It stands to reason that education should have occupied so much of the Progressives’ attention and energy. Since the Progressive project consisted in part of implementing a series of social reforms and of creating a populace creative and flexible enough to accommodate ongoing change in the future, education had to be considered an essential arena for Progressive reform. No halfway measures could substitute for the systematic training of coming generations in the new kind of citizenship that corresponded to prevailing social conditions and to the democratic way of life that John Dewey and his colleagues advocated so vigorously. As Dewey...

    (pp. 119-142)

    Few issues created more apprehension in the minds of Americans or were discussed more vigorously during the Progressive Era than that of the condition of labor. Disputes between capital and labor had been especially violent and chaotic in the late nineteenth century, and as the new century dawned the situation was far from resolved. “In the solution of this question,” wrote a solemn Father (later Monsignor) John A. Ryan, one of the most distinguished pro-labor Catholic thinkers, “is involved to a great degree the future of religion, of morality, of true civilization.”¹

    Historians of American Catholicism, in their treatment of...

    (pp. 143-156)

    The themes discussed thus far have long been recognized as among the principal intellectual trends of the Progressive Era. The development of a secularized social science, Progressive innovations in educational practice, and a heightened interest in political economy as a result of ongoing labor-capital disputes—all these movements, undergirded in large part by a heavy dose of Pragmatist philosophy, made the Progressive Era one of the most intellectually innovative periods of American history. Accordingly, they have received ample treatment in standard historical studies of the late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century United States.

    What is only gradually coming to be recognized as a...

    (pp. 157-176)

    Progressive intellectuals emerged from World War I, in the words of F. Scott Fitzgerald, “to find all gods dead, all wars fought, all faiths in man shaken.”¹ Some of the Progressive spirit lived on, it is true; but many Progressives were chastened, their hopes of founding a new civilization based on science, democracy, and coordinated intelligence seemingly misplaced. Indeed, a small industry has developed among historians around the question of where, after the war had ended, all the Progressives had gone.²

    Catholic intellectuals, on the other hand, in large part because they had stood aloof from and even rejected much...

  11. NOTES
    (pp. 177-210)
    (pp. 211-220)
  13. INDEX
    (pp. 221-228)
  14. Back Matter
    (pp. 229-229)